A Soyuz capsule carrying Russian, U.S. and Japanese astronauts descended safely onto the frigid plains of northern Kazakhstan late Sunday, bringing their four month tour of duty aboard the International Space Station to a successful though wintry close.
Sunita Williams, of NASA, assisted from Soyuz spacecraft after wintry landing. Photo Credit: NASA TV
The TMA-05M spacecraft, commanded by Yuri Malenchenko and carrying Sunita Williams, of NASA, and Akihiko Hoshide, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, dropped through a thick low cloud ceiling under parachute to a touchdown northeast of Arkalyk at 8:56 p.m., EST, or Nov. 19 at 7:56 a.m. -- in the pre-dawn local time.
A delay of several seconds in the deployment of the capsule's drogue and main parachutes shifted the capsule's touchdown slightly to the northeast.
Their capsule was met quickly by Russian-led, helicopter borne recovery forces. The recovery team, working in freshly fallen snow and temperatures well below freezing, assisted the three astronauts from the 31 Soyuz mission capsule and administered preliminary medical exams. Though weary, all three former station crew members appeared to be in good shape.
Sunita Williams, left foreground, transfers command of the International Space Station to NASA's Kevin Ford, right, also of NASA. Photo Credit: NASA TV.
The landing was the first by a Soyuz in darkness since April 2006 and was agreed upon by the U. S. led ISS mission management team because of upgrades to the spacecraft's GPS navigational systems, said Rob Navias, communications officer in NASA's Mission Control.
Malenchenko, Williams and Hoshide were to be flown in individual helicopters to Kostanay in Central Kazakhstan. There, Williams and Hoshide will board a NASA jet for Houston, Tex., home of NASA's Johnson Space Center. Malenchenko will fly separately to Star City, Russia.
Each will undergo several weeks of physical conditioning to overcome the muscle and bone loss experienced during their lengthy exposure to weightlessness.
With the Soyuz TMA-05M's undocking from the Rassvet module on Sunday at 5:26 p.m., EST, command of the six-person orbiting science laboratory shifted from Williams to U. S. astronaut Kevin Ford, who will lead the new Expedition 34.
"I think we've left the ship in great shape," said Williams during a brief change of command ceremony.
The departure occurred a week later than initially planned to accommodate an unscheduled Nov. 1 spacewalk by Williams and Hoshide to isolate a leak in the thermal control system on the station's oldest U. S. solar power module. The work involved re-routing the flow of ammonia coolant from one radiator panel to an inactive older thermal control device. NASA's station engineers continue to evaluate whether the once increasing leak has stopped.
Williams and Hoshide also teamed for a pair of spacewalks on Sept. 5 and Aug. 30 to replace a main bus switching unit, which had been degrading for months. Earlier in August, Malenchenko joined previous station cosmonaut Gennady Padalka for a spacewalk to prepare the Russian segment for the arrival of a new science module in 2014.
Ford, in command through mid-March, remains on board with cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. Their Soyuz capsule docked with the station on Oct. 25.
"We're looking forward to a lot of science, getting a lot of utilization done," said Ford. Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin are scheduled to be joined on Dec. 21 by cosmonaut Roman
Romanenko, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. That trio is scheduled to lift off two days earlier aboard the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft.
The station's current research agenda includes more than 150 science experiments and technology demonstrations.